It can be a little intimidating navigating the sugar and milk station at your local coffee shop these days – and, for that matter, the refrigerated dairy coolers of the grocery store. Oh, and then there’s the non-refrigerated milk section too, usually buried in a center aisle.
These days, we have more milks than most of us frankly know what to do with, and food manufacturers aren’t showing any signs of slowing down the rollout of new options.
How does each alt-milk stack up nutritionally? And maybe most importantly, which mix well into a cup of coffee? Here’s what you need to know about the ever-growing list of alt-milks.
Almond milk is one of the more popular alt milks — Photo courtesy of E+ / Rocky89
For the past couple of years, no milk has reigned quite as supreme as almond. Though almonds are frequently knocked for their massively ecological impact – it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond to maturity – consumers have all but turned a blind eye to the environmental cost of their favorite alt-milk. In 2017, 64% of all non-dairy milk sold in the U.S. was almond.
People love it for it’s mild taste that pairs well with cereal and coffee alike. And speaking of coffee, almond milk is the rare option that both mixes seamlessly with a hot cup of joe, and isn’t so rich as to be unpalatable in an iced latte.
Nutritionally though, almond milk can’t compare to classic dairy. A serving of almond milk has only an eighth of the protein of whole milk, and because of our affinity for sweeteners, many varieties can sport as many as 15g of added sugars. Still, almond milk contains a good amount of Vitamins B12, E, D and A, and surprisingly, more calcium than a glass of milk.
You can make your own cashew milk — Photo courtesy of iStock / laperla_foto
Consumer interest in cashew milk is certainly growing, perhaps reflexively due to some of almond milk’s frequent negative press. A rising star among the plant-based milk crowd, unsweetened cashew milk contains roughly equivalent nutritional properties as its more famous cousin – which is to say, a decent smattering of vitamins and minerals, but only a gram of protein per serving.
Cashew milk won’t give your coffee that signature creamy quality and color that other milks might, but it can make a great addition to smoothies or a bowl of cereal.
Oat milk is on the rise — Photo courtesy of iStock / YelenaYemchuk
For a usually chilled beverage, oat milk has been coming in hot. It's a coffeehouse darling at the moment, owing largely to a brilliant launch campaign from Swedish manufacturer Oatly.
Oat milk is unique in that it is made by adding water (or canola oil) to liquefied oats. As such, it retains all of the plant’s fiber. But because many oat milks – Oatly among them – are certified organic, they lack the fortified vitamin and mineral content of other alt-milks. Still, oat production is fairly easygoing on the environment, which is unfortunately uncommon in this sector.
Hemp milk won't get you high — Photo courtesy of iStock / Linda Raymond
Don’t let the name fool you, hemp milk has virtually nothing to do with marijuana. Produced from the seeds of the hemp plant, this alt-milk contains zero trace of the THC necessary to impart any psychoactive effects.
What it does have in spades though is the omega-3 fatty acids more often associated with salmon than cows, every single essential amino acid, about half the protein of a glass of dairy milk, and vitamins A, B12, D and E.
Peas require much, much less water to grow to fruition than almonds, and the milk created with them boasts as much protein as a serving of dairy milk. Toss in 50% more calcium than dairy milk per serving, and you’ve got a burgeoning alt-milk success story on your hands.
Pea milk manufacturer Ripple is leaning into the green halo of its product, shipping it in containers made entirely from recycled plastics that have a smaller carbon footprint than classic milk packaging. Oh, and one more thing – pea milk is relatively inexpensive, all things considered. A 48oz bottle will only set you back about $4-$5.
Creamy coconut milk — Photo courtesy of iStock / asab974
The humble coconut has exploded in versatile popularity in recent years. Once limited to baking flakes, coconut is now sold in stores in the forms of water, cream and yes, milk. Various coconut milks can contain as few as 80 calories per cup, along with minerals like manganese, copper, magnesium and iron.
Use it in soups and stews or pour it over a bowl of cereal. But most importantly, add it to your coffee with abandon. Coconut milk mixes well with java served both hot and cold, and adds the creamy mouthfeel that people find so appealing about half and half.
Organic rice milk — Photo courtesy of iStock / bhofack2
Along with soy, rice milk goes way, way back in the day to a time before we ever realized that alt-milks would someday be a multi-billion-dollar-a-year business. But unlike soy – and most of the other products on this list – rice milk doesn’t have a tremendous amount going for it when you get down to the nuts, bolts and nutrition of it.
Unfortified rice milk is largely devoid of vitamins, calcium and protein, the three nutrient categories most closely associated with milk.
But rice milk’s blank canvas is also its greatest strength. True, many rice milks on the market today possess a bounty of added vitamins and minerals, but more importantly, rice milk’s relative blandness makes it largely allergen-free. Those who suffer from food sensitivities and immune-system conditions often turn to rice milk as a staple of their diet.
Loaded with vitamins E, B12, and C, riboflavin and of course, potassium, banana milk is one of the more nutritionally dense milks available today. On the flip side, it can be one of the most sugary, with some cartons containing 18g per serving. Other brands offer much lower sugar content, so read the labels to confirm.
Banana milk mixes perfectly with coffee, adding a distinctly rich and creamy texture, with just the slightest hint of banana flavor. It could be too sweet to pour it over a bowl of cereal, but it makes a great milk substitute in baked goods.
Soy milk and the soy beans it's made from — Photo courtesy of iStock / HandmadePictures
You didn’t think we were going to end this list without mentioning the OG that kicked off the entire alternative milk craze, did you? Soy milk may have fallen a bit out of fashion in recent years as plucky upstarts like almond and oat claw away at its market share, but there’s no denying that soy is a plant that built a milky fortune.
Soy milk naturally contains potassium, boasts as much protein as dairy milk and is often fortified with calcium, as well as vitamins A, B12 and D. Even better, it has far fewer calories than dairy milk per serving.
Unfortunately, it may not be a great addition to your coffee, as it's been known to curdle, but it should go nicely with your morning bowl of cereal.